Saturday, January 20, 2018

Two books

The cover glows in the dark
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

A twenty-four year old in San Fran, detritus of the great layoff of 2008, finds a job as a night clerk at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and in its eponymous novel, thence the adventures begin. If you have read the blurb or other reviews, you probably know that the bookstore is really a front for a cultish society devoted to deciphering a centuries-old code that is supposed to hold the key to life, the universe and everything. Books are by the way – it is book making and decoding that take centre-stage; this is a story for the millennial age, where Google and Young Adult Fantasy fiction jostle for page-space with a brilliant exposition on how the brand new world works. It is the story of a world where networking and crowd sourcing intersects with individual brilliance, where unbounded ambition and confidence mixes with sweet humility (oh please produce a Hadoop will you!), where nothing is done because one ought to, but where all (after a fashion) is achieved because one wants it. ‘It’ is whatever takes one’s fancy – delving into typeface, locating a corporate building from a logo, building mini cities in living rooms, or climbing walls in bookstores. It is in a way, a show of youth when everything is within grasp, (and nothing is at stake?), when the best of us is (was) on display.

Someone said that most books fall within two categories – the siege book or the quest book. This book is undoubtedly about a quest, and there is a magical and celebratory quality to it, which is refreshing in our gloomy world of hard and gritty writing. People are in general nice and delineated by flaws in perspective rather than character. The protagonist is one of the most lovely, sorted individuals I have met on a printed page, who ever got to tell a novel. Oldies are benign and women have none of the angst and general PTSD that I have been reading of lately- in fact young women are represented as almost otherworldly, be it Ashley the android or super-powerful Kate Potente. Very interesting and new age. (There is a boys and their toys aspect to the novel, but I will gloss over it).

You have guessed it – I am a woman skidding to her fifties, who gets off on Dostoevsky and Austen. Give me the siege novels that I can brood on forever, the human condition in full detailed horror interests me and if I do not get that in books, I trawl confessional posts on Facebook groups for Moms and “Human interest” stories on Wapo. I loved Douglas Adams for his humour and imagination but I associate his books with a different time, and how they helped me connect with guys, really. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore takes me back to that time in my life but half immerses me there – there is the millennial age realistic piece, like I said, which only sort of grabs me.

[This piece was typed on MS Word using the Cambria (Body) Font. It was then transferred to my blog dashboard in Trebuchet in order to obtain the Garamond typeface on the Blog for when I (and you) access it. Do not ask me why I have to type in Trebuchet to achieve Garamond; I love Garamond and I got a kick when I googled Gerritzoon, the hero typeface in the book, and my Wikipedia quest thereon (Internet has made questing easy for sure), led me to know that Type designs based on work designed by Francesco Griffo and commissioned by Aldus Manutius include Bembo, Poliphilus, and Garamond! Hurrah - that last was typed in Tamil MN – we all are millenials inside, are we not?]

[Edit - It is not Garamond that I get anymore but Cambria! (new version during my three year hiatus from blogging). So ignore the gibberish I have written in the previous para and I will not be grasshoppery any more and try to unravel the typeface pathways on blogger but go harass my son over Chemistry - oh why won't my children learn from me?]  

Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis

I found Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore too bright eyed, so I reached out for an oldie. Lucky Jim, which I now realize won the Booker in 1951. I first read it in 1993, when I was the same age as the leads in Penumbra and Jim. It was a lonely existence. I was by the standards of the time well off, and more importantly set up at the start of a lucrative career in investment banking. Yet, I had no idea how to spend my earnings – a Tambrahm middle class upbringing had taught me to not only fear but also sneer at consumption– I was irretrievably dowdy and dorky. Since popularity and awkwardness are inversely related, I was single and unattached, and like I said, lonely. I shared PG (paying guest) digs in South Bombay (not SoBo then) with someone who whizzed off on trips to Goa and Bangkok every weekend or so it seemed. I on the other hand went to the local phone booth and made calls to people from my little black book to see if someone was ok to meet up, and if they did I made trips on local trains to meet them in Malad and Santacruz and sometimes we planned trips to Gorai. Now without the neurotic wiles of a Margaret or the exceptional attractiveness of Christine (female characters in Lucky Jim), calling up people every weekend to pass your time does not always work. For one, young men tend to look askance at twenty four year olds who want to be one of the guys; and then making a community of footloose and fancy free women in a new city takes time. Six months is a long time when you are only twenty four and in that lonely period, I became a member of the British Council and checked out execrable books that I perused diligently. I was more than quarter of the way through Lucky Jim, when I realized I was laughing out loudly instead of battling boredom. The book unfolded on me in just the perfect way– I love it when that happens. Good antidote for missing a thread of sexual tension under my nose – like Robin Sloan’s most endearing protagonist Clay Jannon.

Twenty years later, I found myself laughing sooner into the book – I was ready to be entertained unlike the first time round when I obviously read in that dazed way of my son. God knows if I would read it if I were my son, more the pity, but I laughed aloud through, startling my pedicurist. But all the world loves a laugher and she was very indulgent towards me.

Jim is a desperate young man in the world of academia, hampered by distaste for humbug, and a nose for mediocrity, not least his own. To make matters worse hormones and a kindly disposition threaten to entangle him in an unsuitable match. Jim seems depressingly done for. Batting for him however is a mad and wicked sense of humour and that is enough to keep us in splits. Yes you will find Waugh and Wodehouse and even Tom Sharpe here. The best of the British. You can go for it, and if the women are typecast as either good eggs or hysterics, well do try and remember that it is the year 1951, men had just died like fleas in the war, and were probably suffering from severe PTSD and envious misogyny. Do what women have done from times immemorial – ignore the dissonance and have fun! There is even a Gussie Fink Nottle speech.